National security is Anthony Albanese’s highest priority and one he says he is determined to get right for all Australians.
In a wide-ranging but somewhat general address to the National Press Club on Wednesday (22 February), the Prime Minister outlined an ambitious reform agenda touching on the economy, education, welfare and health issues among other policy areas.
But with ASIO boss Mike Burgess and a string of cabinet ministers watching, Mr Albanese said defence, national security and investing in Australia’s sovereignty were at the top of his list of things to fix.
And that meant strengthening Australia’s relationships in the region and securing its place in the world.
He said every government’s first priority and foremost responsibility is national security.
“Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister and I received the final report of the Defence Strategic Review,” the Prime Minister said.
“The former Chief of Defence Force, Sir Angus Houston, has described this as ‘the most important’ work that he has done in Defence.
“What an extraordinary statement for Sir Angus to make considering his contribution to this nation.
“Our government commissioned this review because we recognise we live in a time of profound geopolitical uncertainty, both in our region and around the world.
“We wanted an independent, clear-eyed and expert assessment of the challenges we face, the capabilities we require and the tough decisions we need to make to keep Australia safe.”
Mr Albanese said an unclassified version of the report and the government’s formal response will be released before the May budget.
But there were two things he wanted to make clear immediately.
“First … I can promise all Australians that our government will ensure that Defence has the resources it needs to defend our nation and deter potential aggressors,” the Prime Minister said.
“Secondly, while there will inevitably be a focus on the capability gaps we need to fill, we should never lose sight of the extraordinary service performed by the men and women of our ADF.
“And on that, I want to outline to you a section from the review’s foreword: ‘Australia has a strong and deep alliance with the United States, a professional defence force and defence organisation, and an enviable international reputation as a capable country in military, peacekeeping and humanitarian and disaster relief’.
“All Australians can take pride in this, and we should take confidence from it because, with the right investments in our capability and our sovereignty, our defence force can be made ready for future challenges.”
Such investments include operating nuclear-powered submarines through Australia’s AUKUS pact with the United Kingdom and the United States.
The PM described AUKUS as “the single biggest leap in our defence capability in our history”, and it was about much more than nuclear submarines.
“AUKUS is about the future,” he said.
“It further formalises the common values and the shared interest that our three nations have in preserving peace and upholding the rules and institutions that secure our region and our world.
“Australia has long understood that partnerships and alliances are key to our security – that’s still true today.
“But we recognise that pursuing and defending our sovereign interests and contributing to regional stability requires us to build our sovereign defence capability, including advanced manufacturing.”
From day one in government, he said, Labor has made it a priority to rebuild Australia’s standing and influence.
The government is emphasising that it wants to work with Pacific neighbours as partners and equals, with a shared interest and a shared responsibility to build a more secure and peaceful and prosperous region.
“Our government has worked hard to stabilise Australia’s relationship with China, our major trading partner,” he said.
“Recognising the value of direct dialogue, seeking to co-operate where we can while being prepared to disagree where we must, and always acting in our national interest and in support of regional stability.
“In the best tradition of outward-looking, engaged Labor Governments, we are seeking to build security in the Indo-Pacific, not from it.”
Mr Burgess delivered ASIO’s annual threat assessment address the night before the PM’s press club speech and described “unprecedented” levels of foreign spy activity in Australia.